sweat bee on gaillardia

Who Will Save Us from Ourselves?

Image of neonicotinoid label on heather plant

It’s the ultimate feat in cynical marketing: A new plant label appearing now at big box garden centers makes systemic pesticides known as neonicotinoids sound so benign you could practically brush your teeth with them.

“This plant is protected from problematic aphids/white flies/beetles/mealy bugs and other unwanted pests by Neonicotinoids,” says the front of a tag I found in the pots of more than a dozen species at a Delaware Home Depot on Sunday. On the back: “These pesticides are approved by the EPA. For more info please visit us at www.ecooptions.homedepot.com/healthyhome/gardening.” (Don’t try the link; it goes to an error page.)

The new tags come in response to pressure from concerned scientists, environmentalists, and gardeners after two Friends of the Earth studies revealed that plants being purchased to attract bees are often pre-treated with a chemical known to cause them harm. Home Depot has been praised for agreeing to heighten consumer awareness about the issue through labeling.

Image of neonicotinoids plant label
This week at a Delaware store, the tag appeared in pots of rhododendron, thuja, forsythia, holly, and boxwood, as well as in houseplants.

Far from the expected warning about potential toxicity to bees, though, the tag’s language instead focuses on insects most people have been taught to hate. It conjures the image of criminal trespassers—in this case “problematic” and “unwanted pests”—being thwarted by the technological wonders of modern society. It also slyly implies endorsement by
the Environmental Protection Agency, manipulating consumers who may not realize that all pesticides are subject to EPA approval—and that the agency has already mandated that foliar sprays containing neonicotinoids include warnings of high toxicity to bees.

Mixed into soil, sprayed onto leaves, and slathered on seeds, neonicotinoids are systemic, meaning they are taken up by all plant parts and are specifically designed to destroy the creatures who feed on them. How severely seed and soil applications affect bees through contaminated pollen has been the subject of much debate: Some say doses need to be abnormally high to be lethal, while others point to documented sublethal effects: weakened immune systems, decreased foraging ability, reduced nest growth, and drops in queen production. In just the past week, a study from the University of Maryland concluded that pollen consumed by honeybees in normal field doses is likely to have negligible impacts on colony health, while a new analysis of previous data in the UK revealed evidence of reduced colony growth and lowered queen production in foraging bumblebees. (It’s worth noting that even those who downplay the hazards admit it’s a factor in bee declines—just not the only factor.)

What is known without a doubt—and what too often gets lost in the narrow focus on the effect of a single manmade poison on a single insect species—is this: Neonicotinoids, like all systemic insecticides, are killers of many animals. Even the iconic monarch butterfly may be at risk, according to new research at the University of Minnesota. Led by entomologist Vera Krischik, the study found that larvae of both monarchs and painted lady butterflies died after being fed plants treated with imidacloprid, the most widely used of the chemicals.

Collateral Damage of Neonicotinoids

Image of monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillars munching on milkweed may be at risk of ingesting chemicals originally applied to nearby plants.

The results shouldn’t come as a surprise: Pesticides are often labeled to kill caterpillars deemed “destructive,” a term applied arbitrarily to any critter daring to munch on a leaf. And though this class of chemicals is touted as safer for birds and mammals, it’s so toxic to animals lower on the food chain that the indirect effects can be just as injurious: Fewer insects means less food for birds, who rely on them to feed their young; in fact, a study in the Netherlands found an alarming average 3.5 percent annual decline in bird populations in areas with higher surface-water concentrations of imidacloprid.

The arguments in favor of unrestricted use are compelling: that if we don’t have neonicotinoids, we’ll have to resort to much stronger chemicals. That neonicotinoids have helped arborists in the fight to save ash trees from the invasive emerald ash borer. That the population of flea beetles on oilseed rape crops increased dramatically overseas after the European Commission placed a moratorium on three types of neonicotinoids.

But as many people have already proven, it’s possible to farm and garden in a way that would ultimately negate the need for such toxic chemicals. Even if that weren’t the case, why would saving one at-risk plant species be a reason to soak so many others in unnecessary poisons, including the many woody plants that still flourish without our help? And why would the purported need to spray one kind of industrially grown crop justify the use of the same chemicals on Japanese hollies and forsythias planted purely as ornamentals in the garden? (As my husband said while we perused the plant aisles, “Really? They do it to forsythias? Forsythias are invincible!”)

Selling plants that have been treated prophylactically precludes the average consumer’s ability to even pose those questions. It also contradicts the government-backed “integrated pest management” model that recommends using chemicals only as a last resort. As British biologist Dave Goulson noted in the Journal of Applied Ecology, employing the principles of IPM—prevention, monitoring, avoidance of broad-spectrum pesticides—isn’t possible when chemicals are applied to a seed before it’s even sprouted.

A Sea of Chemicals on Retail Shelves

It’s time to broaden the conversation beyond neonicotinoids, beyond bees, and beyond isolated arguments about which chemical kills which insect and when. To have a healthy, functioning ecosystem, we don’t just need bees. We don’t just need adult butterflies. We need caterpillars, beetles, worms, grubs, and yes, I dare say, aphids and other insects who all have an ecological role to play in a balanced landscape.

Image of sweat bee on gaillardia
Direct exposure through foliar treatment is highly toxic to pollinators, as noted by EPA-mandated labels on spray bottles.

The problem isn’t limited to the invisible poisons in the plants we buy. Toxins are sold outright to unwitting consumers panicking about common insect issues in the garden. Promising gorgeous roses in magical happy flower kingdoms, these products magnify our human desires for ease and perfection while catering to our basest fears. Those who don’t care or have never thought about the value and benefit of insects wouldn’t be inclined to delve past the bottle stickers that brag of a product’s ability to kill surface insects in 24 hours and soil insects for up to three months. They wouldn’t think to ask whether unfortunate victims include pollinators nesting on the ground. They almost certainly wouldn’t bother to flip to the back of the label to find the new, dire warnings about the product’s deadliness to bees.

How many more warnings from scientists, environmentalists, and the manufacturers themselves do we need? The fact is, all pesticides kill. Assurances about their safety mean little in a cynical marketplace that continues to prioritize the bottom line over human health and the health of the rest of the living beings who share our planet.

We still don’t fully understand the lasting effects of these products on humans, animals, and soil life. But we certainly know enough to understand the short-term consequences for many creatures. It’s not the aphids, white flies, beetles, and mealybugs we need to be most afraid of. It’s the shortsightedness of our own species. As we’ve already learned from painful experience, if we ignore the longer view—and forsake the only home we have in the name of profit and so-called convenience—it will likely be too late.

Don’t buy into the system. Stay tuned for more information about where to buy healthy, chemical-free plants to attract wildlife.

17 thoughts on “Who Will Save Us from Ourselves?”

  1. The label is only of use to people who are super informed on the topic and those people are probably not going to be the ones gobbling up plants at big box stores. A disappointment but now that I think about it, not a surprise.

    1. Thank you for this. It’s good to see there is a working link. They should make a redirect from the incorrect plant tag link to this page so shoppers can find it if they’re so inclined. Some of the products on the PDF are also so toxic; one even says you can’t spray it within 100 feet of a stream or coastal marsh in New York state.

  2. I was excited about the news when I first heard it but am not surprised that a big box corporation has turned this into a profit scheme. What sleezebags! I grow all my own annuals and only buy perennials from growers that can verify their plants are clean (pesticide-free).

    1. That is great that you grow your own annuals and verify your perennial sources! Right now I’m putting together a list of sources for people in my region; it’s been exciting to see the marketplace of native plant and poison-free sellers expand all over the country during the past decade. It gives us so many more options.

  3. The online plant shop Plants For Pollinators has many beneficial plants and seeds available. We have never used insecticides and never will. We find that hungry free range chickens and a spray bottle of soapy water keep our plants happy and healthy.

  4. Please feel free to expound on your overall model for a society that doesn’t require the use of pesticides. If you can carry that model through 100 years without hitting some point where lots of people die from disease or starvation you will be up for a nobel prize.
    What many people don’t understand is that all pesticides are weapons humans have developed (out of necessity) to protect ourselves and the resources we need to survive from nature. Everything humans do has unintended consequences but I bet Ireland would have loved a cargo ship full of fungicide during the “Great Famine”.

    1. Mike, thanks for your comment. I don’t claim to have the answer for a society that operates completely without pesticides; however, there is widespread agreement that they are far overused, often misapplied, and turned to immediately rather than as a last resort. And there are many different categories of chemicals. Some of the natural ones can be used without the level of damage of a systemic pesticide.

      Controlling insects that transmit human disease is a separate issue from what I discussed in this blog. In the plant world, we now have a more enlightened view of the importance of using chemicals selectively, if at all. A sustainable approach employs the principles of “integrated pest management,” which focuses on cultivation methods first and foremost.

      The potato famine was a result of multiple factors, including a lack of genetic diversity in the single potato variety planted in Ireland at the time. (The potatoes were all clones and genetically identical as well.) We now know that monocultures are at far greater risk of disease and infestation, and that’s something we can address by making our crops and garden plantings more diverse.

      Thanks again for your comment. Hope this helps.

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